Monday, July 27, 2009

One Quart O' Goodness

There are a fairly healthy number of vehicles built in Europe and Asia that are known collectively as the "Liter Class" This refers to cars whose engines displace approximately one liter or about 60 cubic inches. Naturally these are all small vehicles but there is a wide variety of machinery from which to choose despite this "limitation".

Until the advent of the Smart Car the last vehicle with an engine that small was the FIAT roadster of the late 1960s and early 70s. The feisty little FIAT 850 was a blast to drive, had a handsome Bertone designed body, and it sold reasonably well. FIAT nixed the aging platform in the 70s and replaced it with the somewhat larger X1/9 roadster in the late 70s which was sold until FIAT fled the U.S. market in the late 80s. The encroachment of federal emissions and crash standards resulted in a serious weight gain from the 850's initial 1600lbs. to the X1/9's far porkier 2200lb. bulk. Ironically by today's standards this would make it among the lightest vehicles for sale in the U.S. today.

The 850 Spider originally had an 817cc engine rated at only 49HP but had a top speed of 90mph and would achieve well over 30mpg. This was hardly a rocket but the straight-line performance was on a par with a stock original Pinto and its Italian bred handling was a joy. Interestingly the engine size was, at 49cu.in., exempt from early emission regs that did not require engines smaller than 50cu.in to be in compliance. The reasoning behind this was unclear, possibly this rendered most motorcycles exempt, but nevertheless FIAT took advantage. Later the engine size was increased to 900cc which brought the full crushing weight of Uncle Sugar's regulatory iron fist down upon the neck of overseas manufacturers. This weight is principally what forced FIAT from this market and it will return only under the aegis of its merger with Chrysler.

There are many models sold in the European or Japanese markets that are not imported here because of the differences in the regulatory morass imposed on the U.S. auto industry that do not obtain abroad. These differences are for the most part entirely inconsequential but they are differences and that rules out U.S. certification. Converting an existing European spec vehicle to precisely conform to federal D.O.T specifications is an expensive and lengthy process that is rarely undertaken by U.S. or even Japanese manufacturers. Some, such as Mercedes and BMW build bespoke American versions of a number of their models but the percentage of vehicles sent to the U.S. is a fraction of what is available on the other side of the pond. There are also numerous car models built for the Japanese market that never see the light of the sun rising over the U.S. Most "Japanese" cars sold in this country are built here by and for Americans and most of them are not sold in Japan, especially the big SUVs and trucks.

Suffice to say that there are a large number of models that will carry two people, and sometimes four, that weigh on the order of 2000 lbs or less, have engines of around one liter of displacement, and achieve anywhere from 40-60mpg that are not for sale here. Aside from the considerable issues of federalization it has been accepted by most marketing types that Americans simply won't buy vehicles that small in numbers sufficient to promise profitability. After all it doesn't actually cost any less to build a mini-car rather than a subcompact, or even a mid-size, but folks in general will not pay the same for vehicles of differing sizes. Even high fuel prices affect this lamentable, to many, tendency only somewhat.

So the current situation is that car manufacturers are faced with increased govermental coercion to smartly increase fuel economy without building much smaller vehicles and without compromising crashability. This will be a very tall order indeed. Hybrid technologies promise to increase economy without too much of a performance deficit but they come with a high cost in weight, complexity, and naturally purchase price. A rock bottom minimum figure is in the range of $5000 and as vehicle size increases this cost escalates rapidly.

U.S. manufacturers are left with little recourse but to sink resources into trying to make larger vehicles get much better mileage since Americans won't buy small cars for prices that confer any profit potential and to make matters much worse their task has hugely complicated by the regulatory jackboots of the progressive climate-change political agenda. Time and fuel prices would alter this equation in something resembling an organic process but the new administration insists on a hot-house forcing of mileage stretching technologies irrespective of any economic considerations. An I do mean "irrespective". Fripperies such as "profits" are deemed entirely vulgar by those consumed by climate-change hysteria and anyone with the temerity to bring up such "irrelevancies" is perforce branded a traitor to the planet.

Many other countries' vehicle fleets do better mileage-wise than in the U.S. but this has been primarily due to extremely coercive tax policies that have resulted in fuel prices as high as three times what they are in the U.S. Progressive pols would love to do this but if they were seen as being responsible for the tripling of fuel prices then they might lose the votes of even the most radically green constituents or at least those who have an actual job to which they must commute. So to avoid electoral suicide they are attacking the "problem" from the other end by mandating big jumps in fuel economy in a short period of time from the manufacturers who can be conveniently painted as moral criminals if they resist. Seven dollar a gallon gas may not fly even in academe or other liberal bastions but beating the drum of corporate villainy is ever popular. Even the auto firms that for whatever reasons have not been forced to take the King's Schilling suffer the same regulatory browbeating that the bailout recipients are being forced to endure.

Some keen little machines are on offer in the Orient and on the Continent but however slick and fuel efficient they may be it will be some trick to force U.S.buyers into dealerships to buy similar product if they do not want to. Progressives can attempt to ban a great many things but good luck to them in getting the obstreperous and fickle U.S. public to want to buy vehicles that they do not like. I personally will welcome the U.S. advent of vehicles such as the Fiat 500, the Toyota iQ, and other such pint-sized, with quart sized engines, bumblebees. I do not dislike small cars, quite the opposite, and in fact have no brief against them whatever but I do not make the mistake that Prog. pols are doing by projecting (and then forcing) my likes and wants onto others in the pursuit of highly debatable policy objectives.

To the true fascist temperament it is not the least bothersome that the "people" might require being dragged kicking and screaming into lockstep adoration of all things good and, frak help us, GREEN.

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